Never Say Never
by Lotunja Plummer
I never imagined my life could be like this. If someone would have told me that my life would have turned out the way it has, I would have slapped them for lying. In my wildest dreams I would not have dreamt that my picture would be up in bookstores all over America and I would be signing my name to the books that droves of people have purchased and actually enjoy. I guess that’s why they say, “Never say never.”
Look at all these people. Mostly women because they are my target audience. Beautiful Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women. Women of all shapes and sizes. Women of all religious backgrounds and cultures. Many men are here as well, and they look just as excited as the women do. Now this is beautiful. It’s beautiful that I can make people come together, acknowledge their similarities, and acknowledge that their differences are what make them special and loved.
“Who would have thunk it?” I say, smugly under my breath. Besides, I’m just a plain ol’ country girl with pipe dreams. I remember having to ride the bus thirty-five minutes to school because my family lived too far out in the country to walk to school. I remember Ms. Jones, our bus driver, vividly.
“Y’all chullin back there, sit down back there!” Ms. Jones used to say roughly. Sometimes I couldn’t believe that such a forceful voice could come from a woman who was five foot zero and looked to weigh about one hundred and five pounds. Ms. Jones was something else. She could be as sweet as pie one minute, then turn around and be as tough as nails the next. But, I was only with her a short period of time during the school day. It’s amazing that I spent the least amount of time with her, but I remember her even more than I remember my teachers. I guess it’s because it was on her bus that I first discovered my love for reading.
It was handed to me in the hallway on my way to sixth period, the last period of the day. Jessica told me the night before about this book that she had read that she couldn’t put down. I know for a fact that she couldn’t put it down because Jessica is the most talkative person I know and when I called her last night she couldn’t talk because she was, get this—reading!
“What?” I told her in response to my dejection. “You heard me. I’m reading this book called 'Disappearing' and it’s too good to put down. I’ll be finished sometime tomorrow and I’ll let you borrow it,” Jessica said excitedly.
“Uh, thanks but no thanks. I have too much reading to do for Mrs. Wilson’s class and I know Mr. Brown is going to pile up the homework,” I said, declining her offer.
“Whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow. I’m just getting to the good part.”
“But…” The next thing I heard was the dial tone. I couldn’t believe my best friend would hang up on me like that because she’s reading a book. What is she trying to prove? I’m the book reader. I’m the smart one. ‘Whatever’ is right. I bet she’s lying so that she can talk on the phone with Devonne, her new crush. She’s so capricious; you never can tell with her.
The next day was an ordinary day. First period was boring. If I have to sit through Ms. Davis’s boring explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem one more time, I’m going to hurt someone. Second period was much of the same with Mr. Meeks going on and on about neutrons, protons, and…..I forgot the last one. I must have fallen asleep.
Third period was my favorite. That’s World literature with Mrs. Allwood. I like the stories that we read. The only thing is that they’re mostly by and about dead white people. I wish we could read more things about black people. I even said that to my teacher one time. What a mistake. She informed me that there were not enough black writers with work that met the standards that were required to be published into our anthologies. My mouth dropped at my teacher’s unconscionable statement. I can’t imagine why she’d tell a young child something like that. But, she did and at the time, the majority of my teachers were white. So, to us, they were the bearers of all knowledge in our small rural school. I actually believed what she said.
Fourth period was fun. Physical Education can never be boring. It gave us an opportunity to run around chasing people, burn off that extra grease from the food at lunch while we participated in all types of fun sports. Fifth period was cool because at this point in my education I still liked social studies. It was my college courses that made me want to hurl at the mention of History. It was entirely too violent and for what seemed like no good reason. I guess it’s true what they say; history does repeat itself.
I was in transition between History and computer class when Jessica ran up to me in the hall with the biggest smile on her face. I would have thought Devonne had just asked her to marry him. She opened up her purple Duck Head book bag and handed me a paperback book with silhouettes of black people on the front against a turquoise background.
“I just finished reading this book and girl you gotta read it. It was toooooo good!” She said almost stumbling over her feet and her words. “What?” I said trying to understand her newfound excitement. I couldn’t believe she just gave me a book to read when each of my teachers had just given me homework. Even my P.E. coach wants me to record a workout routine for homework. Jessica must have lost her natural mind.
“I gotta go girl, I can’t be late to geometry,” she said as she rushed hurriedly through the corridor and down the staircase to her sixth period class.
“Okay,” I resignedly said to myself as I stuffed her book into my black and white Eastport bag.
When I got to class, I began to take out my notebook to take notes when the book she had given me, "Disappearing," fell out. As I bent down to pick it up, the back cover caught my eye. “Not too bad,” I thought, as I perused the back cover. I wish I had time to read this. But, oh well.
At the end of class, I pressed my way to my locker. To this day, I don’t understand people who stop in the middle of the hall to hold a conversation during rush hour. But that’s what they did, making it extremely hard for me to go to my locker, get all the required materials for that night’s homework, and make it to my bus before Ms. Jones sped off.
Miraculously, I did it. Once I was settled on the bus in my usual seat in the middle of the bus, I contemplated taking out some of my homework. I normally tried to get the stuff that didn’t take much concentration done on the bus so that I would have less to do when I got home. This day, I varied from my normal routine and began to read the book that Jessica had given me.
The first few pages were interesting, but by the time I got to page ten, I was completely hooked. “Leah, Leah…. Gurl if you don’t get off this bus right now, I’m writing you up!” I heard Ms. Jones yelling to me while looking at me through her extra-long rearview mirror. I was at my house and I hadn’t even noticed because I was so enthralled in this extraordinary piece of African-American genius that Jessica had given me.
I didn’t know black people could write like that. I wandered about the comment that my teacher had made to me about black people not writing anything worthy enough to ever be published in an anthology. I smiled at the thought of proving Mrs. Allwood wrong. The writer of this book made her images come to life. I could feel the pain and joy of her characters and they were so realistic that I felt like I knew them. It was unbelievable.
I knew that that night I would have to pull a late one because there was no way that I was putting this book down until its denouement. I also wanted to gather as much information as I could from the book so that I could challenge Mrs. Allwood and her racist comments. In reading this book, I realized that black people are talented regardless of what others may say.
The next day, I begged my mom to take me to the public library. I just had to find more writings by African Americans. I knew that I had to be heavily armed if I was going to go up against Ms. Allwood and her preconceptions of African Americans.
When I got to the library, I politely went up to the librarian and asked for an anthology of works written by black people. Again, I was reminded how small and racist the town I lived in was. Ms. Hollenbeck, the librarian looked down from the upraised platform that her desk was placed on and said in a very Southern nasal voice, “We don’t carry no anthology of works written by black people. We carry a book of African folktales if you wanna see that?”
African folk tales? I didn’t ask to see a book of African folktales. “No ma’am, I would like to see a collection of stories and poems by African American people.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but we don’t have that,” she said with her most irritating Southern belle accent.
I was disgusted. Not only were we denied our culture in the schools, but the town’s racism had transcended from the school to the regional library. I couldn’t believe what an ordeal I was going through. I knew that African American people had written books, but why were those same writers not good enough to be published in an anthology to be admired together as white people were? Maybe my thinking was childish, but I couldn’t help thinking that I had a practical concern.
A little defeated and dejected, I sat down at the long wooden table with the hard brown chairs that were meant for large study groups. As I sat, I contemplated getting older and moving out of this redneck town, and going to a city where I could find books galore and anthologies written by black people. Maybe I would even write a book myself one day that will be so good that it would even be put on the shelves of this hick library.
As I glanced over the library shelves, I couldn’t help but to think that there’s got to be at least enough books written by African American people in this library to put together an anthology. So, since there was not a physical collection of books, stories, and poems for me to read by people of my same cultural background, I would put a mental collection together.
I began frantically searching the shelves for any book, essay, poem or any writing by a black person. I would check out as many books as I possibly could, take them home and read them. That totaled out to be about ten books from the whole library. At the time, I didn’t know how I would do it, being that I was only fourteen years old, but I was determined to put together an anthology one day and it would include my own writing.
I left that library that day feeling like a winner. Not because I had found what I had set out to find, an anthology, but because I was taking steps towards making things better. Maybe even one day I would join the ranks of all the Civil Rights workers who fought so hard to make changes in their small towns. I didn’t know what the future held, but I did know that with the knowledge that I had obtained I would be equipped to fight a good fight.
That’s why today I’m proud not only because I’ve brought many different people together, but I have proven both the librarian and Mrs. Allwood wrong. Not only did I put the anthology together, but some of my own work is included. I’m so elated to know that people can appreciate my work the same way that I had appreciated the work of the first African-American novelist that I read who inspired me to impact the lives of others. By the way, that author and I hang out together now.
While I am signing autographs and taking pictures, I look over to my left and I see a small, old and feeble-looking, white woman making her way to my table. It looks as if every step forward is a struggle for her even with her little wooden cane. Initially, I think nothing of her presence except that she’s another library patron probably coming here to get away from her loneliness at home. Once she gets closer, I began to recognize her and the widest smile materializes on my face.
I quickly finish signing my autograph for a young black woman with twist-curls and stand up to greet the older woman. When she sees my inviting smile, she begins to smile as well. A smile that would have melted the hearts of a million white supremacists.
I began to speak-- not exactly sure of what I’d say, but the words just came out.
I extended my hand to hers and said, “Hello Mrs. Allwood. It’s good to see you. It’s been years,” I said patting her hand gently and smiling. She responded, her speech slightly slurred, possibly a stroke survivor. “I was wond’ring if you could sign this book that I picked up. It’s one of the best pieces of lit’ture I’ve ever read. It’s much better than a lot of the pieces that we used to read in class. And to think, I know the author personally,” she said not relinquishing her smile.
I could have expressed my sincere disapprobation of her and her racist comments when I was in high school. I could have utterly embarrassed her because at this moment she was totally at my mercy. But, I could tell that whatever life circumstances she had gone through since we last encountered each other had already done that and had changed her completely. “Sure, Mrs. Allwood. I’d be happy to sign my autograph,” I said realizing at that moment that if it had not been for her making me so angry all those years ago, I wouldn’t be here today the happiest I’ve ever been.